It only takes a few to make you feel unwelcome: an interview with Scott McGarvey

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

3 October 2016

Despite some very hard times, Scott McGarvey holds no grudges against Grimsby Town. He talks to Pat Bell about a difficult two seasons at Blundell Park

Scott McGarvey was with Grimsby for 18 months. But what an 18 months.

He signed for Mike Lyons on deadline day in March 1987, joining a club that had a realistic chance of promotion to the top flight. His signing seemed something of a coup at the time: he had been one of the most highly regarded schoolboy footballers in the United Kingdom when he signed for Manchester United, and after a frustrating time at Portsmouth, there were signs he was getting his career back on track with 18 goals in 55 appearances at Carlisle.

However, by the time Scott left in September 1988, Grimsby had suffered consecutive relegations under Lyons and Bobby Roberts, and had made a poor start in the fourth division under Alan Buckley.

It was a bitter time to be a Town fan. Commenting on his wider career, Scott says "I replaced Mark Hateley at Portsmouth and then Carl Shutt at Bristol City. I always seemed to be signed to replace heroes." At Grimsby, almost a whole team of heroes – Kevin Moore, Tony Ford, Gordon Hobson, Gary Lund to name a few – had left not long before he arrived. Scott found himself the target of vitriolic abuse, a symbol for what was going wrong. He remained notorious at the club for years after he left.

Now he and I are sitting in a pub in Prestwich, talking about his time at Blundell Park. One thing above all he is keen to stress:

"I want to say is that it wasn't all doom and gloom at Grimsby. I do have some fond memories. I didn't feel that people at Grimsby hated me. They hated what was happening to Grimsby Town. I don't hate Grimsby. I hate the two people who had a go at me every single match, but I think most fans were prepared to give me a chance. I look out for Grimsby's results, just like I look out for the results of all the clubs I played for."

This is borne out by the conversation we have. He had shown no hesitation agreeing to meet me, joking only: "Is it safe?" When I show him the team photo below, which Cod Almighty's Peter Anderson gatecrashed (Scott is the one with an arm around Peter's shoulder), immediately he is asking me after the Moore brothers, John McDermott, Paul Agnew and many more. He speaks with affection and respect for Neil Robinson ("a hustling, bustling midfielder") and Don O'Riordan ("he was in tears when we conceded a penalty, that was his commitment to the club"). When he hears how Town fans had donated money to help fund cancer care for John McDermott's mother-in-law rather than allow Macca to sell his 750th appearance commemoration shirt, he murmurs: "People are really good."

The 1987-88 Grimsby squad (with Peter Anderson)

It becomes a recurring theme of our conversation that I have to break him bad news. He already knew about Kevin Moore's premature death but he was devastated to learn that Marc North ("He could have done really well. He was tall and he could run") had died from lung cancer at just 35 years old. When I tell him about Arthur Mann being killed in an industrial accident, the interview stops while he looks up Mann's details on his phone.

What follows is, as near as I can manage, Scott in his own words. He talks far more quickly than I can write, and, when he is describing action on the pitch, he shapes his body, hunching and twisting his shoulders to show what he was doing.

A few days after I met Scott, he was named in the Daily Telegraph story that led to the resignation of Sam Allardyce as England manager. We'd set up the interview to talk about his time at Grimsby, so we only touched briefly on his work as an agent.

We talked for an hour and a half. The only defensive note comes when I ask him about his hairstyle: "I'd cut my hair by then. Lots of players had perms." Apart from that, Scott talks very openly and honestly. He doesn't boast, he doesn't defend himself, he just describes how it felt to be him, a Town player getting a large share of the blame as we plummeted down two divisions. 

On developing young players

Manchester United arranged for Scott to move to Manchester to finish his schooling before signing for them. He made his debut when he was just 17. Now an agent with Meiran Sports Management, he is well placed to talk about progressing young footballers' careers.

I supported Celtic as a boy, and looking back, it would have been better if I'd started with them. Nowadays, I'd advise any young player to stay in their home environment. Unless they have a really special talent, play for a club no more than 20-30 minutes from home.

My first game was at Leeds. Ask anyone, I played well that day. I didn't score but I hit the bar and had a couple of other near misses. We were losing and a couple of minutes from the end, I elbowed a player and got sent off. It was pure frustration

I was playing first-team football in the top flight before I was physically ready. I was tall but I wasn't fully developed and the game was much more physical then. I played against Mike Lyons and he would just go straight through you. You'd get battered 20-30 times, and that's just on the ball.

I was part of the first-team squad for four years at Man United. But there was only one sub in those days. It was much harder for the manager to blood young players. Nowadays every chairman wants instant success. It's hard for different reasons.

I thought I was being professional, but I wasn't really as professional as I should have been, if I compared the work I put in to get myself ready with someone like Bryan Robson. I coach nowadays, and I tell my players: "If you've got talent but you aren't fit, you are no use to me." You need people who can keep going for 90 minutes.

Joining Grimsby and a losing run

In 1986–87, Grimsby went on a losing run that saw Town relegated, having been outsiders for promotion when Scott arrived in March.

Mick Halsall [another Mike Lyons signing] made me aware Grimsby could be interested. I'd scored against them for Portsmouth, so that might have put me in Mike's mind.

My first game was at Leeds. We lost, but I loved playing in front of a big crowd. Ask anyone, I played well that day. I didn't score but I hit the bar and had a couple of other near misses. We were losing and a couple of minutes from the end, I elbowed a player and got sent off. It was pure frustration.

We won our next game, then I was out suspended when we lost 5-0 to Plymouth. That started a run of eight games with just one goal and one point. We just couldn't get a goal, whatever we tried.

When I'd signed, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph had a headline – it must have been something Mike Lyons had said – "McGarvey is the player to get us out of this division". Unfortunately, it was like Tommy Docherty when he promised to get Rotherham out of their division, and got them relegation. I got Grimsby out the wrong way.

On Mike Lyons and the Grimsby board

Mike was a nice guy. His man-management skills weren't the best, I admit. It was his first job, he was learning the trade. And he couldn't get the players, not ones as good as the ones who were leaving. It was difficult getting players to Grimsby. If players had the choice between living there or living in Liverpool or Manchester, it was going to be no contest.

Lyons' tactics I think were dictated by the players he could get. And the pitch was rubbish; not just Grimsby's – all pitches were. You could only play on them in August.

The board was awful. All the directors were interested in were a few drinks before the game and a large brandy afterwards. Sacking Mike at the end of June was a case in point. Either back the manager to rebuild or, if you don't think he's up to it, make your decision, but don't let the position fester.

Being heckled on the wing

Lyons was eventually replaced by Bobby Roberts, but, asked to assemble a squad at short notice, he could not avert a consecutive relegation.

Bobby Roberts was great with me. He immediately took me to one side and said he wanted me to play on the left. So that meant I heard the hecklers. There was one in the Main Stand and one in the Lower Findus, so I'd get it both halves. Crowds were down, and there wasn't a lot of chanting, so you do hear the one or two people who are shouting at you. It doesn't take many people to make you feel unwelcome.

I got into an argument with fans who were having a go at Steve Saunders. I had to defend him. With his ears, he could hear what was being said even more than me.

On another occasion, his argument with a fan went a stage further. It came after one of his best moments for Grimsby. In an FA Cup tie with Scarborough, Scott had scored but the score was 1-1 with not long left...

We were attacking and I had the ball on the wing. My way down the line was blocked, so I worked it inside then ran to the goalline for the return pass. I got it just inside the penalty box. There were a bunch of players in the box, and no space to work in, so the only thing I could do was dink it high over the defenders so it looped over and back down at the far post. Marc North headed it in and that was the winning goal.

There was no one else at Grimsby at that time could have done that. Mind, it's one of those things you might try 10 or 20 times and it only comes off once, like hitting a chip on the golf course.

So, I'm going back to my position, when this guy – he'd been on at me for weeks – shouts: "McGarvey, you're still a fucking wanker."

If I could have, I'd have beaten Eric Cantona to his kung-fu kick by eight years. I clambered over the fence, but in my football boots, I slipped on the walkway. People in the stand made way, so there was just me facing this this guy and I could see him leaning back away from me, his eyes wide. Bobby Roberts, a few others, were tugging at me, trying to pull me back. Afterwards the police came into the dressing room to take a statement.

If I could have, I'd have beaten Eric Cantona to his kung-fu kick by eight years. I clambered over the fence, but in my football boots, I slipped on the walkway

The next day, the chairman asked to see me. I can't remember who it was – he was a little man. He starts off: "You've got a responsibility to the club, it's really not good enough," all that.

So I lean in on him, and I start: "You useless English git. You're a waste of space." Then I stop, and I say "I'm getting that kind of abuse 90 minutes every week. I've just given you one second of it. I'm getting 100 people slaughtering me all the time."

They tried to fine me a week's wages. The chairman didn't tell me that to my face. It was Bobby who told me. So I said: "OK, but I'm not going to train that week." Remember, it's not like today's players who might be on thousands. I was earning £4-500 a week, so all my money was accounted for. If I wasn't going to be paid, I couldn't afford to come in. In the end, the fine was suspended.

Police in the dressing room

That wasn't the only time Scott caused the police to visit the Town dressing room...

We were drawing 1-1 at Sunderland when they broke forward. I'm trying to keep ahead of their right winger as he races into our penalty area, but he was too quick for me, so I elbowed him. He went down, no-one saw it and I carried on running. I got on the end of their cross to head the ball clear, and we held on to the draw.

Sunderland were top of the league so it was a really happy dressing room. We were all buzzing. Then the police came in. Someone had seen my elbowing their player and had made a complaint. Nowadays, when every minute of every match is recorded, I'd not have got away with it, but luckily no-one else saw it. You had Terry Curran playing for you. He was laughing his head off.

On Alan Buckley

Scott made just one first-team appearance under Roberts' successor, Alan Buckley, at the start of the 1988-89 season.

Alan Buckley would look you in the eye and say one thing to your face, and then something else behind your back. That was my impression, anyway.

He made me travel to a reserve game. He was playing himself and I thought: "What's that about? Why not give some of the youngsters a chance?" I was deliberately whacking passes at Buckley's weaker foot, so he had no chance of controlling them. He wasn't too happy with me. "What are you doing, you cunt?" he was shouting.

I'd known Joe Jordan when I was at Manchester United. He was managing Bristol City and he came in to sign me. The night before I was due to sign, Grimsby had a League Cup tie against Rotherham, and Buckley picked me as sub. It was in the papers that I was going.

With a few minutes to go Buckley asked me to get ready to play. "Fuck off," I said, "I'm not going on." We argued, but in the end Buckley insisted. He just wanted me to hear everyone booing me, knowing I was going the next day. Because of that couple of minutes I was cup-tied. Bristol City reached the semi-finals that season, and I couldn't play.

On his reputation in Grimsby

Next time you go to a game, take a banner saying "Scott McGarvey says hello". You'll get pelted.

I played 50, 60 times for Grimsby [more than for any of his other nine clubs]. That's something you can't take away. Despite everything that was going on, the manager thought I was worth picking 50, 60 times. If I was fit, if I wasn't suspended, I was picked.

You need mental strength to play at home

People at Grimsby had gone from watching good players to ones who weren't really good enough. There wasn't the mood that if we were a goal down, or drawing, ten minutes to go, the fans would get behind you, urge you forward to get something out of the game.

There was a big difference between playing at home and away. It's not really different like that at Grimsby from anywhere. The away crowd are always with you, always ready to get behind you. At home there's more pressure. A lot of players don't have the character to play well in front of a home crowd. It might not be a question of talent – it's about having a big enough character to take that pressure.

You run out and the teams are announced, and maybe there's a bit of a groan when your name is read out, and straight away you are on a downer. Then you are hoping to get a good touch in early, do something well, get people on your side.

A few years ago, I was watching Man United in one of the executive boxes. These two were giving Ryan Giggs abuse every time he touched the ball. I made for them after. I told them: "You don't realise, Giggs will touch the ball more times than anyone else on the pitch. He's not going to make something happen every time." Of course, at Old Trafford, the personal abuse is going to be drowned out in all the noise. But also, a player like Giggs has the mental strength to block out the abuse, and just carry on doing the right thing for his team.

On life in Cleethorpes

I was travelling from Manchester. I'd maybe be put up in Cleethorpes the odd night each week. Looking back, I wish I'd moved, but the money they were paying me wasn't really enough and I'd just got married. After two, two and a half hours in the car, I'd have to ask someone to have a steaming hot bath ready for me when I got out the car, just to ease my back before I could train.

I had many a good night out in Cleethorpes. There was no fighting. I'm a sociable guy and if someone wants to spend time with me I will. A few people would say some stuff but I enjoyed the banter and at the end they'd say: "You're OK, Scott," whatever they thought of me on the pitch.

Send us your feedback